In the heart of Oregon’s picturesque farm and wine country, an 18-story mountain of trash rises next to the Yamhill River.
For two decades, Fifth-generation farmer Ramsey McPhillips and a motley crew of neighbors have waged a quixotic battle to stop north america’s largest garbage company from growing even bigger.
Who wins matters.
FOUR MILES past McMinnville on Highway 18, a couple of ramshackle barns and two rusting silos stand amid wheat and grass that glows golden-green in a setting spring sun. In one of the smaller buildings, Ramsey McPhillips feeds his five bearded Toggenburg goats before locking them up for the night.
“Hello everyone, who’s hungry?” he asks, swinging the stall door open. Bernadette, one of the three babies (alongside Bernardo and Bridgett—next year all the names will begin with “C”), bounds into his arms.
Locking the stall door, McPhillips steps out. To the east, Mount Hood shimmers above the trees. To the west, Coast Range foothills roll gently beneath a cape of vineyards. And to the southwest rises a mountain of garbage that sprawls over 85 acres and towers 135 feet tall.
McPhillips wears his customary flannel, corduroy jacket, and the battered felt Pendleton hat he’s rarely without. (Even in a suit, he has the hat.) His wild, untrimmed mustache looks like a marmot clinging to the bottom of his nose. He’s the fifth generation of the McPhillips family to operate the farm, which turned 150 this year; nevertheless, his life has been far from pastoral. McPhillips, now 54, has wandered widely, working as everything from a Central Park ranger on a horse named Devo to a combination horticulturist/therapist for the COO of the World Bank.
Looming above a nearby stand of Oregon white ash trees that separates his farm from the dump, the Riverbend Landfill is also closing up for the night—the machinery shutting down and the birds, racoons, and coyotes arriving for what McPhillips and neighbors call “the moonlight buffet.” Started as a small mom-and-pop dump in 1982, it has grown into one of the largest man-made structures in the state, owned by North America’s biggest garbage company, Waste Management Inc.
Municipal solid-waste landfills pose a general conundrum in a state that prides itself on its environmental standards and farmland preservation practices. Among other things, dumps are Oregon’s number one source of climate-warming methane emissions. But Riverbend is particularly troublesome, starting with the location: a bend in the Yamhill River that’s in hazardous proximity to the entire region’s water supply. Within three miles—and easy sight and smell—sit 500 family farms that grow everything from apples to wheat to hazelnuts. Within four miles, there are half a dozen vineyards and award-winning wineries, including the area’s oldest, Eyrie Vineyards, and the state’s largest biodynamic vineyard, Momtazi.
“Why do Yamhill County farmers have to host garbage from urban centers forever?” asks McPhillips, pointing out the fact that half the landfill’s garbage comes from the Portland Metro area. “We’re not a wasteland. We’re some of the best farmland in the world.”
Nobody has watched the landfill grow—and fought it—for longer than McPhillips. His great-great-grandfather homesteaded the farm in 1862. His grandfather was the first head of Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission. Having long dreamed of transforming the farm into a horticultural school, McPhillips originally planned to simply wait out the endless caravans of garbage trucks: the landfill was originally scheduled to close in 2014. But in 2008, Waste Management announced a plan to double Riverbend’s size and extend its life by 30 years.
So he decided to fight.
“Basically, my family has always been a steward of the environment and agriculture in Oregon,” he says. “We’ve been here 150 years and want to be here another 150 years. This is really about whether or not Oregon values old, traditional farming on great soil and clean rivers, or whether it wants to export its garbage to the wine country and destroy farmland.”
What has unfolded since is one of the Willamette Valley’s strangest, longest, and most expensive political battles. McPhillips may have started out as an eccentric Don Quixote NIMBY farmer tilting at landfills, but his efforts have brought together a rare coalition of farmers, environmentalists, land use advocates, and vineyard owners who have fought the landfill’s expansion at the ballot box, in the Yamhill County Commission, and all the way through the Oregon land use system. Yet even as the fertile land surrounding the dump has come to epitomize the national farm-to-table movement and become the toast of international oenophiles, Waste Management has unrelentingly pushed to expand.
Now the battle has entered a new stage. One of the landfill’s early engineers has joined McPhillips’ coalition with allegations and evidence that Riverbend Landfill has violated its permits and is possibly leaking toxins into the water table. Other engineers and scientists believe that an earthquake—even a 7.0 on the Richter scale, a quake much weaker than the 9.0 often forecast for Oregon—could turn Riverbend into an environmental catastrophe. Meanwhile, the $13.4 billion Fortune 500 trash corporation has brought in one of its top troubleshooters to soothe the opposition and unveil a smaller, ostensibly more environmentally friendly expansion—but an expansion nonetheless.
“This is what the country’s going through: corporations versus the small guy,” says McPhillips. “It’s very rare in the history of giant corporations that they don’t get their way. But we still think we have achance. We’re not throwing spaghetti against the wall.”